Sheila Atim marveled that the top four actors listed on the call sheet during filming of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s hot epic The Woman King “are all dark-skinned Black women.”
Smiling, she said proudly, “That’s something!”
Atim continued: “A movie of this scale with a studio, with this kind of platform. It does also mean something very significant when a big studio takes us on. That says something.
“I’m so proud of everyone in this film, I’m so proud. I was there with them and saw how much everyone gave of themselves and how much we raised each other up to deliver this.”
This weekend, the TriStar release topped the U.S. box office charts with a projected $19 million opening.
”In the making of this film we were all acutely aware of what it means to be a heavily female team, both in front and behind the camera, and to be predominantly Black women, predominantly dark-skinned Black women as well, which is an added layer. And to be telling a story that hasn’t been told before, and on a huge epic scale as well,” the London-based thespian told Deadline during a lunch at The Union Club located in Soho, in London’s West End.
“We were all acutely aware of what that means and how slim the margin for error was. And the stakes for us on a personal level.”
We met in peace, but talk soon turned to that of warriors and war.
The Woman King is about an all-woman fighting force known as the Agojie, who are loyal to to the king of the west African kingdom of Dahomey. Viola Davis plays General Nanisca, the Agojie’s fictionalized leader.
Atim plays Amenza, a servant-turned-fearless fighter; she’s General Nanisca’s best friend and confidant, and spiritual adviser to King Ghezo (John Boyega). The film is set against a backdrop of a kingdom fighting to preserve its way of life from slave traders.
Director Prince-Bythewood wanted her cast to be fighting fit before the cameras rolled. For Atim, that meant six weeks of rigorous training before traveling to Cape Town, South Africa, to join cast and crew.
The actors trained throughout the shoot as well. Personal trainer Gabriela McLain put them through their paces. “She’s lovely and sweet but also, we would all hide from her,” Atim said, hooting with laughter.
”We’d be like: ‘Gabi’s trying to train people. Run away!’ ”
But as much as the women would hide out from McLain “we would seek out Gabi when we knew we needed to train. There was a lot of weight training just to help sculpt the body. Gabi and Gina were very specific about how they wanted each warrior to look .What I think is so beautiful about this film is that we’re all very different body shapes…I like that it’s not an army that looks uniform in its body type. They wanted it to look real, they didn’t want it to be a hyper superhero version of what we’ve become used to when we see films with action in them.”
For Atim, as with her fellow cast members, her character has a back story. Amenza’s is that of a woman captured from a village and made a servant to members of the army. She then befriended General Nanisca and joins the Agojie.
“The story that they carry as characters permeates every aspect of their lives including when they’re on the battlefield.”